When he was 13-years-old, Kirby Saunders was riding bikes with a friend on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach. As someone stepped into his path, Saunders quickly squeezed the brakes to avoid a collision. He tumbled onto the pavement, hit his head and saw his future.
Directly behind the teen, also on bicycles, just happened to be Virginia Beach Rescue Squad EMTs. Despite wearing his helmet, Saunders suffered a concussion and a closed-head injury. The EMTs provided immediate care and he was taken to the hospital. Saunders considered himself fortunate that day. He also began considering a future in emergency medical services.
A few years later, on a skiing trip with his Boy Scouts Troop, Saunders took another peek into his future when he fell and broke his collarbone. Once again, EMTs were quickly on the scene. Saunders remembered everything about the EMTs on his trip to the hospital. He specifically remembered the compassion from them.
The experiences set into motion a course where he would earn his EMT certification when he was 16-years-old. Saunders’ family came from a military background: his dad was in the Air Force; his grandfather served in the Navy; uncle in the Navy; brother in the National Guard. He looked for an opportunity to blend his career options.
“I had this interest in medical, but I also had this interest in military, and I wondered if there was any mix,” Saunders said. “I discovered the Air Force Pararescue Program.”
Pararescue teams — also called ‘para-jumpers’ or PJs — are essentially the Special Forces of the Air Force, but its role can take members into hostile and life-threatening territory to rescue downed pilots.
Toward the end of his time in high school, Saunders was faced with a dilemma: he was expected to attend college. He could attend the Air Force Academy, or a service academy and become a commissioned officer, but PJs were non-commissioned positions.
“I couldn’t be a PJ. I couldn’t be the person in that helicopter going into the jungle, or wherever, to make a rescue,” Saunders said. “So, I diverted from that.”
His interest in emergency medical service was still strong. He joined a volunteer rescue squad in Halifax, Va., and looked forward to every one of his shifts. He decided he would go into emergency health sciences and emergency medical services. He attended Jefferson College in Roanoke, Va.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saunders had stepped out of his paramedic lab class with a few classmates to go to the snack machines in the break room. A wall-mounted TV was airing breaaking news of a plane that had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
Saunders and his classmates did what anyone in the emergency medical services field would do: strategize about how people in the building needed to be evacuated and rescued.
“I was expecting to see, you know, helicopters land on the top of the tower and load people and bring them down. I was expecting to see this dramatic rescue,” he said.
The group in the break room watching the TV had grown to about 10, with all of them offering opinions of what they would do to get people to safety to prevent it from becoming a mass-casualty event. And then the second plane hit, forever changing the course of EMS education and training.
“There was just complete silence. Like, what just happened?”
After class, Saunders and his classmates returned to their dorm rooms and glued themselves to their TVs. Classes were cancelled and students were told to go home. Some of his friends were called to Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas to ‘backfill’ EMS services responding to the attack on the Pentagon.
Saunders and several of his classmates gathered at the station where they volunteered, wondering what they should do.
“It didn’t feel natural to not help,” Saunders said. “Our passion is to help people, and so it felt not natural for any of us to just go home.”
They donated blood. They thought about collecting supplies to send to New York or D.C. They got a call from a friend working near the Pentagon asking if Saunders and his friends could come up and help.
“So the three of us jumped into a Dodge Neon loaded with gear, and hit the road,” Saunders said.
Before they reached the nation’s Capitol, they got a call back from their friends near the Pentagon saying their help was no longer needed, and that they themselves were leaving D.C.
It took only a few minutes for the overstuffed, D.C.-bound Dodge Neon to become an overstuffed, New York-bound Dodge Neon. The three of them figured they could help at a hospital, or hand out water, or take blood pressure, or anything else they could do to help first responders.
“We had no intentions of going to Ground Zero or getting involved in the actual rescue effort. We weren’t opposed it. It just wasn’t our intention.” Along the way, they purchased disposable cameras to document their trip.
Hours later, on the New Jersey Turnpike, Saunders and his two buddies were seeing roadway message boards saying that all entrances to New York City were closed, and advising travelers to turn around. They kept going. They reached the last toll booth before entering New York, and stopped. As toll booth operators approached the Dodge Neon and its country-boy cargo, they half expected to be told to go back home. Instead, the operators saw the EMT equipment in the backseat and asked if they were firefighters or EMTs.
"They said our help was needed, and a phone call was made."
A short while later, a New Jersey State Patrol car showed up and escorted them in. It was late when they reached the George Washington Bridge. The patrol car turned off and returned to the Jersey side. The three friends were in the only vehicle on the massive iconic bridge.
Sanders' grandparents and other relatives had lived in New York, so he had been there many times. But he’d never tried to navigate the city on his own. Crossing the George Washington Bridge, he remembered enough to know there was one specific exit they needed to take to get to the West Side Highway, which is what they wanted. If you missed it, you’d end up in an area you wouldn’t want to be in at that time of the night.
They missed it. The trio saw a man wearing a jacket with FBI in big, white letters on the back standing on a corner. They pulled over to the man and asked for directions.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m from Austin, Texas.” They saw, further down the road, an NYPD bus with 30 to 40 armed police officers. One of the policemen told Saunders and his two friends that check-in for first responders was at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on 37th Street, and he gave them directions.
The officer looked at the three of them like they were the human equivalent of a “We’re tourists, and we’re lost” sign. “I don’t know exactly where you’re going but that’s where you need to get to,” he said. “I gotta tell you, you gotta get out of here. You’re in a bad part of town.”
When they reached the Jacob Javits Center there were very few people around. For the first few days after the attacks, Ground Zero was mostly cleared of personnel at night because the site was unstable. They saw another bus and knocked on the door. A command officer for NYPD let them on. He was dressed in a crisp, white shirt, straight black tie, hat, collar insignia, and brightly shining badge. He directed them to an open spiral notebook on the counter. Three columns were drawn on the page. “Put your name, what you can do, and your phone number,” he said, with an accent that neatly placed every known New York stereotype into a sound. “You can come back tomorrow morning.”
The three college students stayed the night at Saunders’ Great Aunt’s apartment near Central Park. When they returned the next morning to the convention center, they were dumbfounded by what they saw. Thousands of people were there: firefighters, steel workers, police, medical personnel, construction workers. Even a group of cheerleaders were there to add support. The equipment being donated stretched for blocks: saws, transformers, huge generators.
Saunders and his friends returned to the bus they signed in at the night before. An NYPD officer approached them, shirt untucked, tie loosened and crooked. No hat. It was the same man from the night before.
“Go to that notebook, put your name, what you can do, and your phone number,” he said.
The three young men told the officer they had already signed into the notebook the night before. “Well, do it again. I don’t know what happened to that other notebook.”
When they stepped off the bus, a man yelled to them asking if they were firefighters and EMTs. They said ‘yes,’ and were told to get their gear and get in the back of the man’s pickup. Saunders and his two friends piled onto the back of the truck with three other people. Almost before any of them could get settled, the truck sped away.
“I remember I was sitting on the tailgate,” Saunders said. “We took off on the West Side Highway going south, and I mean going south fast. There’s no traffic. We were going 50 or 60 miles an hour and my feet are hanging off the back of this truck. I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna get injured before I even get to help.’”
The truck finally stopped and dropped off the group of first responders. The driver pointed down the road and told them to keep walking.
“You can’t miss it,” he said before speeding away.
As they walked toward Ground Zero, reality started setting in for Saunders. In the hours together with his fellow students from Virginia, there was never a discussion about what to expect. Just that they were going to help.
“I won’t say fear, but uncertainty starts to set in with butterflies, you know?” Saunders recalled.
As they got closer they were approached by three waves of people with offerings. The first offered snacks, water, bananas. The second wave gave them gloves, flashlights.
They gave them face masks.
The third group were faith-based organizations that handed out pamphlets and asked, “Do you know where you’re going if you die?” “Are you saved?” It was the last interaction they had with the general public before getting to the Twin Towers wreckage.
When they rounded the curve and saw Ground Zero for the first time, Saunders’ body quit moving. The pile of rubble filled his field of view. His heart was beating outside of his chest. The dust from the destruction sat in the air like fog. He couldn’t swallow.
Saunders said he believed they stood there for 30 minutes trying to take in what looked like a 10-story anthill with thousands of ants running all over it.
They were standing next to Ladder Firetruck 3, which was badly damaged and partially covered with rubble and powder. Saunders and his group were told to salvage hoses and other equipment from the vehicle.
For days after the attack, fires still raged in several of the buildings near the World Trade Center complex. Water service had been shut off to that part of city out of fear that ruptured pipes underground could drown any potential survivors. So firefighters were pulling water from sources farther away, and needed all the available equipment they could get their hands on.
They were warned to not walk too close to buildings as large and heavy sheets of glass were still falling from damaged structures. Saunders and his friends took their place in a chain of people, as the remains of the Twin Towers were passed in five-gallon buckets from one person to another.
Every 30 minutes to an hour, a siren from a bullhorn — the same one President George W. Bush would use on Sept. 14, to address to the world from the rubble — would cut through the dusty air. Silence would blanket Ground Zero as thousands of workers listened for sounds of survivors.
By the third day at Ground Zero, realistic thoughts of rescue became a mission of recovery. Saunders said, because of the equipment worn by police, firefighters, and EMTs, their bodies were more easily identified. When a first responder was recovered, all work stopped for respect and ceremony during the removal of the body.
In the lobby of the gutted World Financial Building, tables of food and other supplies popped up to serve the workers at Ground Zero. Federal agencies set up makeshift offices from which to work. Saunders said he remembers a large sign posted by the FBI showing what the airplane recording device, or “black box” looked like. The entire place was still a crime scene.
Saunders and his group worked the pile each day for hours. Gradually, the barrier around Ground Zero became more guarded and secure. The amount of media near the site grew bigger. Also growing larger, almost by the minute, was the crowd of people there to offer support to the workers at Ground Zero.
“It’s what I remember most,” Saunders said. “Every kind of person stood next to each other and showed support. We were asked if there was anything we needed. We were given hugs. We were given kisses.”
Another friend of Saunders made the trip to New York to help. After a long day, the group decided to get away from Ground Zero. They wanted a steak dinner. They loaded into a pickup and went in search of a steak house. They found one, but, still in their dirty clothes from working at the World Trade Center, the group thought they might get steaks to go, or maybe there would be outdoor seating.
When they stood in the doorway of the restaurant, the owner, dressed in a way that clearly conveyed ‘jacket and tie required,’ invited in the young men. The venue went silent and then erupted into a standing ovation. People seated at the bar offered their stools to Saunders and his friends. Despite insisting they would pay for their meals, the owner offered whatever they wanted, on the house.
“It was probably the best ribeye I’ve ever had in my life,” Saunders said.
Back at Ground Zero, the bucket-after-bucket routine could become emotionally draining. On one such afternoon, Saunders decided to take a break, take a banana and water, and find a spot to gather his thoughts out of site of the pile and debris.
An observation Saunders made about Ground Zero was the amount of paper that was all over the area. He said it was sometimes knee-deep with paper.
On a curb around the corner from the World Trade Center site, Saunders was quietly sitting. He was approached by two men who asked if he was OK. He said he was, and then noticed a business card sticking out of his boot. He grabbed it, looked at it for a moment, and then stuck it into the elastic band around his hardhat. (Saunders has never learned what happened to the person on the business card, but the office was at the World Trade Center. He still has the business card and the hardhat.)
The two men who walked up asked Saunders if they could join him to eat their lunch. They made small talk for a while, and then Saunders asked them what they do. They said they were Pararescuers with the Air Force.
Saunders’ mood immediately lifted, and he chatted like a kid in the presence of his larger-than-life heroes.
Not long after that, Saunders and his friends from college decided it was time to go back home. Work at Ground Zero had stabilized and become more organized. He had learned a lot about himself from the experience. He also learned a lot about emergency management. So much that it became his career focus.
Years later, Saunders returned to New York and went to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. He was stunned to see the Ladder 3 Firetruck displayed. The very same firetruck he and his friends helped uncover and pull equipment from. When the museum workers learned of his relationship to the firetruck, they asked if he could provide a write up of the experience, which he still plans to do.
Saunders said he marks the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks every year, and even talks with his two friends about their experiences at Ground Zero.